Consumers expect sustainable products

An interview with Hella Jongerius

CO2 emissions, net-positive, post-consumer plastics: the debates on sustainable business are marked by a dizzying array of complex terms. Vitra explains the most important ones in its sustainability glossary, for which Dutch designer Hella Jongerius conceived the illustrations. These were graphically implemented by Swedish illustrator Linn Fritz. We met Jongerius in her Berlin studio and spoke about the anger of animals, putting companies in the washing machine and why drawings are the perfect way to communicate sustainability issues.

Why is it so difficult to talk about sustainability?

Because everything is connected. What is the true price of a product? How do you calculate the lifespan? What does longevity mean? Then there are the legal requirements and standards that a product has to meet. It’s really quite complex. In the end, the only correct approach is to produce just enough to not negatively impact the planet.

My impression is that when it comes to sustainability, different solutions that are each seemingly correct can contradict each other – depending on your perspective of the topic.

That’s why I ask whether you can do sustainable business at all within the capitalist system. It is difficult if you work in industry or are an entrepreneur because you are always producing new things. It’s a balancing act, and that’s why I admire the people at Vitra for taking on the challenge. And not just doing a bit of greenwashing. They are putting the whole company in the washing machine. It’s really an investment in research, in product development, in materials. It’s very brave, this third-generation initiative, and they’re leading the way ...

... and doing so in economically and politically difficult times.

Yes, at the moment you don’t have the sense that you can take chances and experiment a bit. But I think consumers expect sustainable products. At least the younger generation is not keen on things being produced irresponsibly.

Let's talk about your contribution to the sustainability glossary. Why did you choose drawings as a means of communication?

As a designer, I think in terms of designing by making objects or by drawing. That’s my language, that’s how I express my point of view.

And why do animal figures play the main role in the illustrations?

Over the years, I keep coming back to the idea of animals as ambassadors. They seem innocent, so as characters they can be more radical, funnier, more exaggerated than humans. When it comes to sustainability, we talk a lot about numbers, facts and terms. But it’s not just a rational matter for the head, it’s also about the heart, about feelings. Humour is important. Animals can tell us uncomfortable truths in a humorous way. Everyone likes animal stories, they remind us of our childhood. But the characters shouldn’t be childish: the animals are funny, but also bad-tempered, even angry. After all, we are destroying their habitats.

Can you as an individual, as a designer, make any difference at all?

Yes, I think so, even if it is only a small contribution. In the end, I decided not to work for the industry anymore because then you’re producing something new. I tried for a long time to change the industry from the inside. But that is no longer my role. I think I can reach people better when I do exhibitions in museums. I research materials and exhibit the results. Materials are the key to making design more sustainable. There is knowledge and craftsmanship in materials – an embodiment of our whole culture.

Publication date: 12.5.2023
Author: Jasmin Jouhar
Drawings by: Dorothée Billard and Hella Jongerius